Though a South Indian, having studied Genetics in college, I have always cringed at the thought of marrying a relative because for me it amounts to incest. Yes, in South India the practice is much prevalent. Cousins marry each other and marriages often happen between the girl and her maternal uncle as well. But for me my cousins are as good as real brothers. My maternal uncle was like a father or sometimes like a brother to me.
I have also heard that it happens among Muslims and some communities in Maharashtra. But, as I started researching the subject, I was told that certain Punjabi communities like Anand, Kohli, Bhasin, Chadha, Sabharwal, Suri, Chandhok, Sethi and Ghai also practice it. This was news to me although there has been a lot of Punjabi influence on our family particularly on cuisine; I never knew about it.
It is common knowledge that many famous celebrities are also inbred, belonging to the same blood. Some examples are Jesse James, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Johann Sebastian Bach, H.G. Wells, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin- most famous of all. But, what is the problem? The progeny is prone to be born with a genetic defect like Down’s syndrome. This was the argument Fauzia Azim Afsar, who married her cousin gave me pro inbreeding. She has educated herself to become a C.A.
She insists, “We have seen people getting married outside their community because they are scared of inbreeding. However, still chances of having still born baby or baby with genetic defects looms large. So just because what we have read and seen doesn’t generally means is going to happen to each and every one of us, who choose to marry their own cousins.”
Advantages: There are some advantages sited by the communities practicing this tradition. Fauzia says, “In fact my grandparents and parents are actually cousins. In our family or just like any other Muslim family, top priority is given to people, who we have known for years (cousins). If you look at the bright picture the families have known each other, the kids have grown together. The possibility of divorce also narrows down, when relatives marry!”
Dr. Meena Kasaragod, Consultant Psychiatry, Columbia Asia Referral Hospital, Bangalore, says, “There exists a general belief that consanguineous marriage reduces the possibility of hidden uncertainties in health and financial issues. Marrying within the family gives a degree of comfort to the person psychologically. This kind of marriage fosters confidence in the individual and takes away all the insecurities associated with an arranged or a love marriage.”
Progeny: When one marries relatives, there is all the more chance of the children having genetic defects, which is present in the family. Dr. Meena says, “Inbreeding increases the amount of genetic disorders in the progeny of consanguineous couples. Closer the biological relation between the parents, greater is the possibility that the offspring will inherit identical copies of one or more detrimental recessive genes which may cause Down’s Syndrome. This is a congenital disorder arising from a chromosome defect, causing intellectual impairment and physical abnormalities such as stunted growth and a broad face.”
Dr. Sadhna Singhal, Senior Gynaecologist from Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, Delhi agrees, “The autosomal recessive genes (genes that are passed on to the child through the parents) may not present themselves in the carriers but if both the parents have recessive traits, then there are high chances that they might be dominant in the progeny.”
Dr. D.K. Guha, Senior Consultant, Pediatrics, from the same institute adds, “The extent of the risk of being affected with the disease depends on how close is their parents’ genetic relationship with each other. The risk is greatest in those children whose parents are close relatives and lower in those whose parents are distant relatives.”
Lifestyle Changes Cannot Work: Medical professionals have insisted that if some diseases are hereditary, lifestyle changes can reduce the chances of the disease manifesting in us. But Dr. Meena prefers to disagree, “Despite lifestyle changes and hereditary disorders in people outside the particular family consanguineous marriage clearly possess the increased risk of genetic disorders in the offspring.”
Dr. Sadhna also says, “Lifestyle diseases do not affect the genes and are as such not transmitted to the progeny. These diseases are caused by lifestyle problems of an individual and may or may not be passed on to the offspring. Regarding hereditary diseases, there are high chances that the progeny will inherit the diseases from his/her parents irrespective of the existence of any kinship between them. The same goes for genetic diseases.”
Pregnancy and Delivery: Now the question arises. If one marries a relative does that fact affect pregnancy and delivery? Dr. Guha insists, “Close kinship between parents increases the risk of delivering still born babies, infant mortality and reduces the child’s life expectancy.”
Medical Advice: Some people can’t help it due to community constraints. So, what can be done about it? Dr. Meena says, “Consanguineous couples should be adequately counseled and informed about the risks of genetic disorders associated with consanguineous marriages.”
Dr. Guha also insists on medical tests and examination, “One cannot deny the fact that in-breeding is risky for the progeny and hence, should be avoided, if possible. If not, genetic counseling should be undergone by the couple when they are planning a baby. During the consultation, an evaluation to determine the risk of giving birth to a child with a disease will be done based on the couples’ medical history.
Conclusion: Asked if she would allow her children to marry relatives, Fauzia says, “By the time they grow up to get married things/society/how to perceive will change drastically. Also they will be grown up to take their own decisions just the way I did (smiles).”
It was fine in the beginning of civilization, when the defective genes were few and far in between. But now things have changed since almost every family has some medical history to contend with.
Many years ago one doctor advised me that it is better to marry someone with ‘healthy’ genes and heredity. When he said that, he was not talking about marrying relatives. Is that possible in today’s world given the fact that every family has some medical history today?
In any case one helping of a defective gene is better than 2 of the same any time because 2 similar genes are a guarantee for that particular defective trait to exhibit in the progeny.